On Saturday, Starbucks dropped what may be the biggest policy change in its existence as a company:

It will now allow anyone--paying customer or not--to use its stores and restrooms, regardless of whether or not they make a purchase.

The news was first reported by The Wall Street Journal:

On Saturday, the company told its employees in a letter that "any person who enters our spaces, including patios, cafes and restrooms, regardless of whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer."

Under the new policy, customers were still expected to use spaces as intended, be considerate of others, and act responsibly, according to the Journal. Additionally, employees received new guidance on handling customers "behaving in a disruptive manner," although the company "didn't say what that procedure entails or define what constitutes disruptive behavior."

The policy change comes about a month after a video filming the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia store went viral. One of the men asked to use the restroom despite not making a purchase, and was denied. The store manager then asked the men to leave. When the men allegedly refused, the manager called the police.

The incident sparked a national conversation on the subject of unconscious bias and prejudice. But it also seems to have forced Starbucks' brass to answer some difficult questions: Should customers be permitted to stay in a store indefinitely? If so, how much are they expected to purchase? What exactly is the restroom policy?

What makes those questions even more complicated is the fact that Starbucks built an entire brand on its reputation as a "third place," between work and home, that customers could go to meet friends, get work done, or simply hang out.

The new policy appears to answer the previous questions: Everyone is welcome, and everyone is considered a customer. 

But now there are new questions.

For example, I'm sure Starbucks has seen its fair share of loiterers in its stores, sucking up the Wi-Fi without buying anything. But will this new policy embolden an entirely new demographic of vagrants and drifters? If so, how will this change the atmosphere of Starbucks as the "third place"? Will overcrowding become a problem? And will all of this discourage potential paying customers? 

It's not that I think treating everyone who comes around the stores as if they are a paying customer is a bad idea. I certainly believe all people should be treated kindly, respectfully, and without prejudice or bias. Maybe the best way to do that, as a corporation with hundreds of thousands of employees, is to try and foster a store culture in which everyone is welcome--regardless of whether they purchase anything.

But I don'believe it was smart for Starbucks to toot its own horn. I mean, couldn't the company simply have treated everyone who showed up at its stores as invited guests, without literally inviting everyone in the world to show up?

Oh, well. I guess the cat's already out of the bag.

One thing is for certain: Starbucks will never be the same.

Time will tell if that's good or bad.

Published on: May 20, 2018